The Israel-Russia ‘Axis of Resistance’: Its place in regional geopolitics

As the gradual Russian build-up went ahead in Syria, bolstering the regime of Bashar Assad, we saw US leaders claiming to have some concerns, while fundamentally welcoming Russia as a new “constructive” ally in the allegedly “anti-terrorist” coalition. US Defense Secretary, John Kerry, declared Russia was largely engaged in “self-protection” of its forces already there (

On September 30, this turned into flagrant aggression with devastating Russian airstrikes launched against the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Homs, Hama, Idlib and Daraa – all major centres of the revolution, where there is no ISIS – killing dozens of civilians on the first day. In response, Kerry announced that “If Russia’s actions reflect a genuine commitment to defeat ISIL, we are prepared to welcome those efforts” (, while issuing a joint statement with Russian FM Sergei Lavrov, about their mutual interest in “fighting ISIS” and the need for US and Russian air forces to “deconflict.” The US would agree to the Russian bombing “with conditions” (

However, while the US position is hardly surprising to those of us closely watching Syria, some may have been more surprised by the even more emphatic welcome given to the Russian moves by Israel.

Russian-Israeli coordination agreement

As with the US, some Israeli leaders expressed some “concerns,” but these were followed by a state visit to Moscow in which Netanyahu took two of his top Israeli Defence Force (IDF) generals ( The meeting resulted in Israel and Russia agreeing to “coordinate aerial activities over Syria” (, while Israel offered to pass on “quality intelligence” to the Russian military about “everything that is taking place in Syria” as “the Russian army might need Israel’s assistance in confronting the complexities of the fighting there” (

To do this, the IDF and Russian military will set up a joint working group “to coordinate their Syria-related activities in the aerial, naval, and electromagnetic arenas”
(, or, according to another source, “coordination in the air, sea, on land and in cyberspace” (

Israel’s Walla website stressed the importance of the coordination within electronic cyberspace, as “the Israeli navy is keen to ensure that the electronic activities of Russian aircrafts and ships do not have a negative impact on strategic Israeli submarines that are active opposite to the Syrian and Lebanese coasts,” which “carry out espionage operations and collect intelligence in addition to transporting special units that carry out operations” outside Israel’s borders (

Putin made good on his word just before Russian bombing began:

“Russian government officials made contact with Yossi Cohen, the national security adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as with senior figures in the Israeli defense establishment about an hour before the Russian attack, saying that Russian planes would shortly thereafter be bombing targets in Syria … In a briefing with reporters in New York after his meeting on Monday with U.S. President Barack Obama, Putin acknowledged that Israel has security interests in Syria, and that he respects this” (

On the same day, Israel’s Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom announced his country’s support for Lavrov’s initiative to combat the Islamic State under the auspices of the United Nations: “I think if they will fight Daesh [Islamic State], if they will fight al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, all those crazy and lunatic organizations, we are totally in favor,” Shalom stated (

Days into the Russian aggression, Netanyahu refused to join the US and others in mildly criticising the Russian action, declaring “We don’t want to go back to the days when, you know, Russia and Israel were in an adversarial position. I think we’ve changed the relationship. And it’s, on the whole, good” ( So good, in fact, that, according to Israeli Channel 2TV, Israel “will provide Russia with intelligence information about opposition sites in Syria to facilitate Moscow’s military operations” (

Yet Israel hates Russia’s ally Iran?

There can be little doubt about Israel’s hostility to the Syrian people’s uprising against the Assad tyranny when it offers such a degree of collaboration with the armed forces of the imperial state that has done more than anyone to bolster the Assad regime. Yet, Netanyahu’s rhetoric remains at least partly directed against Iran/Hezbollah as well. But isn’t Russia allied to Iran, they being the two key allies of Assad’s regime? So how to understand such contradictions?

Israel would not have reacted to a massive Iranian build-up in nearby Syria by making some polite rumblings of disquiet for a few days, and followed it with a trip of top IDF generals to Tehran to discuss aerial coordination and intelligence sharing, surely?

No, although before one declares that, on the contrary, Israel would have launched WWIII over that, let’s remember that there already has been a massive Iranian build-up in Syria over the last two years. Iran is the major occupying armed force in Syria, to the point that the Assad regime has almost become an Iranian colony. To the point, in fact, that there are open rifts within the regime over this, and probably even Assad himself feels the need for some room to manoeuvre (see this article on this question:

And, no, Israel hasn’t begun WWIII, but the massive Iranian build-up has been enough to shift Israel’s position from the solidly pro-Assad position it held in 2011-2013 to a more “both sides kill each other” position in 2013-2015, combined with taking potshots on Hezbollah forces when they operate in the far south, close to the Israeli-stolen Golan Heights (but quite pointedly, nowhere else in Syria).

So, not WWIII, but also not the robust welcome that Netanyahu is giving his friend Putin, who, last year during the latest Zionist blitzkrieg on Gaza, declared “I support the struggle of Israel” (

Therefore, the marked contrast between Israel’s welcome of Russian intervention and its anti-Iran rhetoric tells us, once again, that Assad’s regime is not the problem for Israel.

Israel, Russia, Iran: Points of Agreement

Let me put it right out there in a way many people will say is just wrong: Iran, Russia and Israel have the same fundamental view on Syria.

Of course, Iran and Israel haven’t much looked like they do over 2013-2015. That’s because Israel and Iran have a clash over the broader region, which then gets partly played out in Syria when Iranian proxy forces (eg Hezbollah) get close to the stolen Golan, or when Iranian missiles are getting moved across Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. But that’s not really about Syria, or Assad, as such; that’s about Assad’s survival becoming increasingly dependent on the Iranian occupation.

So what do I mean the three countries, including two declared enemies, “agree” on Syria?

Basically, Plan A is that the the Assad regime must be preserved, and if possible restored to control over larger areas of Syria, as the power to look after their interests in Syria. These interests include, for Russia, its Mediterranean naval bases in Tartous on the north coast; for Iran, its connection to Hezbollah in Lebanon via the Qalamoun region between the Lebanese border and Damascus; for Israel, restoration of Assad to his role as best border cop protecting Israel’s control over the Golan.

More generally, all three are threatened by a revolutionary uprising dominated by the largely Sunni Arab masses of Syria, but then again, so are the Gulf states, Turkey, US imperialism etc, without such specific interests; and all three, like their mutual friend al-Sisi of Egypt, are particularly good at using “anti-jihadist” language to justify this stance.

However, if this is impossible, then Plan B calls for the creation of an Alawite-dominated statelet (even if unofficial), consisting of the heavily Alawite coastal provinces (Latakia and Tartous) through the Lebanese border region (Homs and the Qalamoun) down to Damascus. Such a sectarian partition would aim to keep the “great unwashed” Sunni masses of “jihadists” (ie, the worker-peasant Sunni Arab majority, the backbone of the revolution) at bay behind defensible lines.

Such a statelet would serve the key Iranian interest, which is centred on the Qalamoun, and the key Russian interest, which is centred on the coast. But if it didn’t reach beyond Damascus down to the Golan “border,” it would not be able to serve the key Israeli interest.

While Israel has relied on a pliable Assad to not fire a single shot on the stolen Golan for 40 years, and to prevent Palestinians or anyone else getting near the “border,” the reality now is that Assad is unable to re-take control of Daraa and Quneitra provinces (those adjoining the Golan); and he can only even try with the help of Iran/Hezbollah, in precisely the part of Syria Israel doesn’t want them, creating a clear dilemma for these two “non-allied allies.”

However, for Israel, this idea a sectarian Alawite statelet faced against the bulk of the Arab masses – similar to the sectarian Christian-dominated Lebanese state for decades, and similar to itself – has been a long-term option. For example, the Jerusalem Post in 2011 wrote that “the result would be the formation of a bloc of states in the western Levant which would share the common interest of avoiding Sunni domination. For the first time, Israel would have actual state allies in the region, as opposed to temporary peace treaties” ( This echoed a view expressed by US geopolitical strategist Robert Kaplan two decades earlier: (

And since Iranian domination of the region is proceeding on the basis of sectarian conflict, cutting out an Alawite-dominated statelet in part of Syria is precisely an Iranian plan as well. With the difference that, unlike Israel, Iran is actually able to make it happen, with its prominent role in the massive sectarian cleansing of the Qalamoun region which connects Damascus to the Lebanese border, and of the Homs province connecting this to the Alawite coast (and thus resulting in 1.1 million refugees in Lebanon). The role of Hezbollah in the recent two-month Assadist siege of Zabadani ( – the first town liberated and run by the FSA in 2012 – and the role of Iran in leading “ceasefire” talks on behalf of the regime, that involved an exchange of populations – ie completion of the ethnic cleansing of Qalamoun – makes this Iranian strategy clear (

Behind the Israel-Iran conflict

The problem being, of course, that this makes – *at least for now* – this cleansed statelet an Iranian rather than an Israeli asset. The “enmity” in this case expresses itself in competition over hegemony within such schemes of sectarian statelet creation.

However, one might still ask – if both Israel and Iran have a policy of uprooting and “cleansing” millions of Arabs as they strive to dominate the region, and since they are effectively separated from each other by the mass of largely Sunni Arab humanity that they both see as Untermenschen, why can they not be allies rather than competitors in this?

For some, that is easy: they believe, comic-book-style, that Iran, despite its class nature as a brutal capitalist tyranny, is motivated by anti-imperialist intentions, and aims to use Hezbollah to fire rockets on Israel until Jerusalem and the Palestinians are liberated (even those less sure about such motivations believe this Iranian quest for liberation is a remaining result of the “forever deepening and broadening Iranian revolution” some half a century or so ago). And the Netanyahu-type reactionary populists running Israel pretend to be in full agreement with these starry-eyed leftist admirers of reactionary mullahs. But now, moving beyond the realm of fantasy.

I’ve discussed this issue recently (, and my basic view is that the Zionist and Iranian theocratic projects both need the “great enemy” of each other to justify themselves. Israel couldn’t believe its luck when a nutty mullah like Ahmedinejad organised a Holocaust-denial conference and invited the KKK, and the same regime pushed a nuclear program. Perfect for Zionist homogenisation: a “holocaust denying regime wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth and is building nuclear weapons to do it with!” Nothing quite like having a 4th Reich in the neighbourhood. As for Iran, well, for how many decades has the “road to Jerusalem” gone through either Baghdad, or Damascus or some other unfortunate Arab capital over the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Arabs?

In reality, their distance from each other is precisely what makes this propaganda game safe. It was only the actual contiguity of a Lebanese Shiite population under brutal Zionist occupation in southern Lebanon for two decades that led to the growth of Hezbollah and thus actual confrontation. But Israel was evicted from Lebanon in 2000 – 15 years ago – and as such Hezbollah has not the slightest interest in using its new Syrian presence (or even its Lebanese presence) to “liberate Jerusalem,” or even to fire a rocket. However, the propaganda “war atmosphere” requires occasional Israeli potshots when Hezbollah gets within striking distance of the Golan.

Actually, I believe there is another reason: there is a specific kind of strategic competition. Not the kind of competition that exists between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who are all medium-level Muslim capitalist states who can actually compete for economic/ideological hegemony among the masses of the Mideast – Israel by its nature can only lose hands-down in that competition. No, competition for the position of regional cop as recognised by world imperialist powers, especially the US.

Now of course, most readers would say that is far-fetched, which it is, for now: that mantle currently belongs to Israel. But the emergence of a powerful non-Arab state of 70 million people from imperialist sanctioned isolation to imperialist-blessed prominence, via and since the nuclear accord, cannot but be seen as a threat to its position by Israel in the medium-term – if not to replace it, at least to rival it – especially as this rival gets stuck in its own corner of enmity to the Arab world via a Zionist-style program of sectarian cleansing.

But whatever the case, let’s just agree that Israel sees the Iranian-Hezbollah role in bolstering Assad differently to how it sees the Assad regime itself. Therefore: Enter Israel’s friend Russia to help deal with these dilemmas.

So, enter Russia

Enter Russia on the same side, as a balance against the regime’s Iranian dependence: Russia thus saves Israel from the dilemma of wanting to support Assad but not his Iranian benefactors (as this Foreign Affairs article, among many others, argues: So we have a rather different reaction from Israel. Not only from the Zionist military/intelligence elite – which has been far less enthusiastic about playing Netanyahu’s strictly political anti-Iranian game of showmanship – but from showman Netanyahu himself.

What was Russia’s response to Netanyahu’s “concerns” that Iran was supplying Hezbollah with weapons and his fantasy that they might use the Russian presence to launch attacks on Israel from southern Syria?

Putin’s response was rather clear: According to Netanyahu, after telling Russia Israel would continue to strike Hezbollah targets if they “threaten” Israel, “there were no objections to our rights and to what I said.” Putin declared:

“All of Russia’s actions in the region will always be very responsible. We are aware of the shelling against Israel and we condemn all such shelling. … In regard to Syria, we know that the Syrian army is in a situation such that it is incapable of opening a new front. Our main goal is to defend the Syrian state. However, I understand your concern” (

Of course, there has been no shelling of “Israel;” except for one recent incident, the only shells that have fallen have been within the Israeli-stolen Golan Heights. Moreover, even these mere handful of times have mostly been accidental spill-overs of the conflict in southern Syria. Hezbollah hasn’t shelled Israel at all, except in January in response to Israel killing some of its members; Hezbollah is far too busy killing Syrians to indulge in any of that. Netanyahu lies for a reason, of course: he wants Israel to have full freedom of action within an undeclared zone close to the Golan. By agreeing with this lie, Putin gave him this.

And if Russia is giving Israel freedom of action in its zone of interest, we can be sure that Israel has promised Russia the same freedom of action over the rest of Syria, ie, playing a vanguard role in Assad’s bloody counterrevolution. Referring to Netanyahu’s meeting in Moscow, Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Moscow, explained “Israel made clear to him (Putin) that we have no real problem with Assad, just with Iran and Hezbollah, and that message was understood” (

Actual Israeli interests

However, what of the fact that Russia is also coordinating with Iran in its current operation? Two points are worth considering here. First, while obviously preferring Russian to Iranian leadership in defence of Assad, is Israel necessarily hostile to Iranian/Hezbollah activity further north, away from the Golan? Secondly, even on the Golan, if I believe that Netanyahu’s expressed “fear” of Hezbollah rockets liberating Jerusalem, or even landing on the Golan at all, is a farce, then what is the Israeli interest in the south?

These two questions were more or less answered together by IDF spokesman Alon Ben-David in May:

“The Israeli military intelligence confirms that the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s ability to protect the Syrian regime has dramatically declined, making the Israeli military command more cautious of a sudden fall of the Syrian regime which will let battle-hardened jihadist groups rule near the Israeli border.

The article continued: “Therefore, he reported that the Israeli Air Force and the Military Intelligence Service are preparing a list of targets that are likely to be struck inside Syria, after a possible fall of the Assad regime (

This tells us that: further north from the Golan, Israel is essentially supportive of Iranian/Hezbollah action to defend the regime; and that Israel wants leeway in the south not only to carry out its current potshots at Hezbollah, but to be in a position to resist the dangerous future scenario of a fall of the Assad regime and the likelihood that any successor would be less amenable than Assad to continuing Israeli occupation (“battle-hardened jihadists” needs to be understood as code for any Syrians resisting occupation).

Moreover, as we saw when the Druze issue raised its head some months ago, Israeli interests in the south go beyond any immediate issues it may have with either Hezbollah or “battle-hardened jihadists.” Israeli propaganda then focused on threatening to intervene to “protect” the Druze in south Syria against Nusra, even “mulling the creation of a safe zone” – ie, a new Zionist land grab – “on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights in order to aid Druze refugees” (

A stance which raises yet another option for Israel if Syria comes apart: if an unofficial Alawite-Shiite statelet stretching from Damascus northwest to the coast can only be formed under Iranian rather than Israeli hegemony, Israeli could try to opt for its own sectarian project in the far south, focused on the Druze, thus forming a new “buffer region” to protect its 50-year Golan “buffer region.”

While that may be just speculation, it is clear that the wording of Israeli and Russian statements about their agreement strongly indicate that Israel’s key demand was freedom of movement in the south, and that Russia acquiesced with that.

Russian-Iranian rivalry and differences?

Which raises the further question of whether Moscow and Tehran are working together, or as rivals, in their support for Assad. Of course, reality is likely to be a combination of the two. There is little love lost between any of the regional or global powers on either “side,” all are rivals advancing their own capitalist interests in the region. While Saudi Arabia and Turkey may be both aiding the anti-Assad side, they are also bitter rivals (especially in conflict over the Turkish-supported Muslim Brotherhood); so likewise Russia and Iran have every reason to distrust one another.

Indeed, while Russia supported the US opening to Iran, in the long-term it cannot but be concerned about the possibility of a post-isolation Iran becoming more of an American partner, especially if the faction around Rafsanjani gains an upper hand. Much commentary has speculated that this is at least part of the motivation for both Russia and Israel to strengthen their own bonds.

One issue is that, while Russia is bolstering the regime along the coast where the Alawite population is concentrated and where Russia has naval bases, for Russia this is only a pragmatic step to strengthen the Russian position, but still with the ultimate aim of finding a deal that preserves – or creates – a stable bourgeois regime in Syria. To this end, the current Russian strengthening of the regime in its “natural” regions is not necessarily counterposed to a negotiated solution that could see Assad himself “transitioned” aside, and an ‘Assadist state without Assad’ forms a coalition with conservative sectors of the opposition leadership, ie, the US-favoured ‘Yemeni solution.’ However, Russia insists that for now, until the “defeat of ISIS” (by which it means the defeat of all Assad’s opponents), Assad must stay.

As such, the differences between Russia and the US and others over how long a “transitional” role for Assad may be allowed are tactical: all believe that preserving some kind of reformed regime over the whole of Syria is key to the solution that preserves imperial interests in the region. While Russia has recently floated that it is not enamoured to Assad in the longer term, British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond suggested Assad could stay for a “transition period” of 6 months (, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that “Assad doesn’t have to leave on day one, or month one, or whatever” (, German chancellor Angela Merkel recommended Assad be involved in negotiating a solution (, and in face of Russian aggression insists that Russia is essential for ending the conflict (, Austria’s president Sebastian Kurz claimed the West needs to involve Assad in the war to defeat ISIS (, while Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop declared “the only conceivable option would be a national unity government involving President Assad” (

Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia fundamentally agree with this “conservative” position, for want of a better word. But on the one side, Egypt under al-Sisi’s bloody dictatorship is very close to the most pro-Assad Russian position, and it has welcomed the Russian invasion as a blow to “the spread of terrorism” ( In contrast, the Saudis are at the opposite end of the conservative spectrum, the most trenchantly opposed to any role for Assad, due to KSA’s role as official head of Sunni Islam and the thrashing it would get from anti-Saudi Sunni Islamist movements if it compromised on Assad himself.

On the other hand, Iran on the regime side, and Turkey and Qatar on the opposition side, have tended to be less “conservative” in as much as they have been willing to rely on a certain amount of controlled “mass” politics, the former with Hezbollah, the latter with the Muslim Brotherhood and other mainstream Syrian Islamists. Russia may find Iran’s sectarian project too potentially destabilising (see for excellent discussion of this); what for Russia may be tactical, may be more strategic for Iran. Russian connections have also been mostly with the national Syrian Army rooted in the traditional state apparatus, Iran has built up its own sectarian Alawite-based militia, the National Defence Forces.

Israel straddles the two tendencies; while the preference would be for a conservative solution that restoes the regime right to the “border” to carry on its traditional role of border-guard, the recognition that this may be impossible makes Israel go for the best of both worlds via the Russian agreement: everywhere beyond the far south, Russia leads a war against the rebellion with the ultimate aim of a state-preserving conservative solution, while Israel is allowed to toy with its own partitionist solutions in the “buffer” region if it finds it necessary.

Admittedly this is speculative, and the two “tendencies” here should not be mistaken for hardened “positions,” but they can indicate tactical differences among the powers involved.

Israel’s shift back and forth on Assad

Washington’s one-year war, in which it has hit not only ISIS, but every other armed force in Syria except the Assad regime (, has seen the US and Assad’s barrel bombers share control of Syria’s skies. This is called bolstering the Assad regime without saying so. The difference with Russia is that it openly says and does so.

So it is hardly surprising that the US has largely welcomed Russia’s move, while being concerned about the loss of face and “credibility” that such bold actions by the rival superpower have caused. Over the 2013-2015 period, US and Russian positions on Syria have converged. In the first two years of the revolution, 2011-2013, while fundamental US policy was the same – preserve as much of the regime as possible by politely asking Assad to “step aside” – the anti-Assad rhetoric was influenced by the preferences of its Gulf and Turkish allies, and by the pro-Arab Spring pretences of the Obama administration.

The rise of ISIS from late 2013, by contrast, has allowed the more pro-Assad shift since then to be couched in traditional “anti-terrorist” rhetoric.

However, some may have been more surprised by the even more emphatic welcome given to Russia by Israel. If it had been in 2011-2013, there would have been no surprise; Israel’s then dominant view was resolutely pro-Assad ( Even the key move that highlights the US shift in September 2013 – the US pull-back from the alleged threat to launch strikes against Assad for his chemical attack – was the result of a deal with Assad to hand over his chemical weapons, in which both Putin and Netanyahu were involved (

But Israel soon after this “crossed-over” the US road in the opposite direction, turning up the rhetorical heat on Assad over 2013-2015. This occurred when it became clear that the new US accommodation with Assad was intertwined with the US move to relaunch negotiations with Iran, following the rise of the Rouhani pseudo-reformist leadership there – especially given that Assad was becoming increasingly dependent on Iran in the same period.

That is why the new Russian move to take leadership of the fight to defend the regime has allowed Israel to slip back into its more natural position. Writing in the Maariv newspaper, IDF spokesman Alon Ben-David quoted a source within the Israeli Joint Chiefs of Staff saying that “although no one in Israel can say this publicly and explicitly, the best option for Israel would be for the Assad regime to remain and for the internal fighting to continue for as long as possible” (

Meanwhile, also in Maariv, right wing writer Caroline Glick stressed that Israel must provide Russian with the necessary intelligence to help them in their fight against the mainstream Syrian opposition, which unlike ISIS actually threatens the Assad regime. She claimed the Russians will find “the appropriate way to pay Israel back for its help.” Israel’s former Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni – of Operation Cast Lead fame – went one step further, claiming “the world looks at Iran and Hezbollah as legitimate partners in the confrontation against Daesh” (

7 thoughts on “The Israel-Russia ‘Axis of Resistance’: Its place in regional geopolitics

  1. Although much here seems hard to believe, it does however go a good way to explain the various shifts and changes in mood music of late. But what of Russia’s deal with Saudi Arabia for a massive (21 Gigawatt) nuclear power investment programme whilst still backing Assad as well as working with Iran in Syria? There is also the well known collusion between Russia and S Arabia re the reconfiguring of the oil and gas markets as a contingency against Iran’s resumed and massive hydrocarbon export potential post-sanctions. I am not attempting to score points here but I am rather baffled by the over-laps, contradictions and seemingly counter-intuitive behaviour of some of the key players.

    1. Brian, certainly part of what I wrote is speculative, as I admit a couple of times in the article. As for Russia and Saudi Arabia, it fits the general pattern I what I was saying towards the end – just that the gap is bigger, on Assad himself. Indeed, the US-Iran dealing is an issue that draws Russia and Saudi Arabia together, but of course, only up to a point. Likewise, Russia and Turkey are on opposite sides on Syria, while they also signed the great gas pipeline agreement. Every state in the region is wildly manoevering; it certainly is baffling! My main issue was Israel-Russia, but my further foray into geopolitics is only intended to be suggestive of trends and underlying pressures, certainly not the final word on what is going on.

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